“How can you mend a broken heart?” So sang one sibling group, the Bee Gees, and now the last man standing from that musical family, Barry Gibb, carries on, brilliant as he is, with an inescapable sadness over lives ended too soon, things that can never be said, or unsaid. Maybe that notion of the shortness of life is what’s prompted Ann Wilson to reunite with her sister Nancy Wilson and go back on the road as Heart this year. The what-can’t-be-said-or-unsaid concern, or just the lure of big money, has brought these goddesses back together for a 39-show “Love Alive” tour that will culminate at the Hollywood Bowl in September.
I saw Heart at the Bowl in an extraordinarily powerful concert, with orchestra, back in 2015. A month later I saw Heart in the desert at a casino venue in the Coachella Valley. They’d been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a couple of years earlier. They were at an all-time high in their late career. And then everything imploded due to an unpleasant kerfuffle backstage at a show in September 2016 that unfortunately went very public and very viral, and the sisters became estranged. In 2017 they both went on the road separately. Ann put her own band together with some of the Heart players and Nancy formed a whole new band called Roadcase Royale with a sassy singer, Liv Warfield. I saw them both that summer, and was planning to write something then titled “A Heart Torn Asunder”. I think a combination of my own life being a bit torn asunder that year (and the backlog of concerts I still haven’t posted from then supports that!) and my general ambivalence about what the Wilsons were individually doing musically and the reason they were working separately, kept me silent. I didn’t want to be feeding into the frenzy of gossip and opinion about something personal, and disturbing, when all I have ever cared about with Heart is their music. I haven’t let myself get caught up in the business of their personal lives the way many fans do, or the way I sometimes will with other artists.
Nancy herself seemed more than willing to let the estrangement be public, even publishing a heart-wrenching article before Thanksgiving 2017 that made me very sad. After Linda Ronstadt, Ann and Nancy Wilson have been my greatest female musical loves. I’ve loved them from the first time I heard “Magic Man” on the radio in Sydney in 1976, and then listened to the Dreamboat Annie album until it was flowing through my bloodstream, floating on my breath, and compelling me to race home from high school every afternoon, dress up in what I thought looked like gypsy rock chick clothes, and lip sync to the entire album looking at myself in the mirror. This continued through Little Queen, Magazine, Dog & Butterfly and into the eighties. To this day I am pretty sure I could win a Lip Sync Battle doing early Heart songs. And to this day I am transported to an otherworldly love life I’ve never really had through “Crazy On You” and “How Deep It Goes” and” “Love Alive” and “Treat Me Well” and “Cry to Me” and “Just The Wine” and “Lighter Touch” and “Mistral Wind” and “Sweet Darlin’” and “Raised on You” and “Hey Darlin’ Darlin’” and “Perfect Stranger” and “One Word” – breathtakingly beautiful, exquisite, soulful, glorious paeans to love.
When I first met Ann and Nancy, up in the Foundation Room at the old House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in 1998, I told them about my after-school Dreamboat Annie act in the mirror. Nancy, in one of the most gracious responses I have ever had from an artist when I am being an all-out fan, said, “We used to do exactly that to Beatles albums!” She had just miscarried and was letting Ann take Heart on the road without her for a while. She was very open with me, a fan and a stranger, about what was going on in her life. I kept my side of the conversation about the music; I told her I thought the Private Audition album was too underrated, that it had some of my favourite Heart songs, like “Angels”, which Ann had written with their frequent co-writer Sue Ennis for Sean Lennon after the murder of his father, and which Nancy then talked to me about. She struck me as open, sharing, whereas Ann was quiet, reserved and guarded and I thought, how interesting, these two sisters so close and such proponents for music as love, and so different, at least on the outside.
This most recent division of musical pursuits was not the first time they’d had a break from Heart. In 1998 Nancy did some solo shows and recorded a very pared-back album called Live at McCabes Guitar Shop, which I saw her perform live at The Mint. She was married to filmmaker Cameron Crowe and he’d invited friends along like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who were cuddling at a little table in a corner of this intimate club. (It was so LA.) There’s always been a whole lotta love around the Wilson sisters – and even when they rock out like the wildest rock women and cover Led Zeppelin, it’s still all about love. They had a side project together back in the nineties, a very cool band called Lovemongers that recorded an album called Whirlygig. Even when they weren’t writing and singing about love in a straight on love way, everything they did was underpinned with the notion of love underpinning all.
A few years before then, they had hit a real high as Heart with their brilliantly authentic take on the unplugged show, a live recording called The Road Home that is a benchmark in unplugged-style records. I wish I had seen that show. The number of times I’ve seen Heart over the years is too few, given the depth of love for the band that I have. A couple of shows in London in 1990, then in LA when they were performing separately in the late nineties, and a handful of times in this decade here in LA, including being present at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2013.
They didn’t make it to Australia for the first time until 2011, and even then it was as a support for some heavy metal band like Def Leppard, which made no sense to me. I got to meet them briefly again that time. Nancy was effusive; Ann was quiet. I stood between them for my photo, as full of wonder as I was when I stood in front of the mirror at age 15 pretending to be them, just like they had long ago pretended to be the Beatles. It’s a through line of love, this heart of music that is passed on from artist to listener, and from listener to listener. It’s why their fans are known as Heartmongers.
I loved them all this time and through all the ins and outs, and I am excited that I can see them together again later this year, but I think about the shows I saw them each do in 2017 and my lack of excitement about seeing them again in their solo endeavours after that, and I wonder what each of them has gone through to get to a point where asunder can become together again. I saw Roadcase Royale very early in its life, at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills on 1 June 2017. I found it disconcerting to see and hear another singer singing Ann’s vocals while Nancy did her guitar wizardry alongside, and I didn’t love the new songs enough to want to follow Roadcase Royale’s journey and buy the album and see them again. It wasn’t Heart.
And Ann doing her “Ann Wilson of Heart” show – because she could do that, being the main voice of Heart, the voice that when in form can cause tens of thousands of people to drop jaws to the floor when she hits that part of “Alone”, the real-life Dreamboat Annie whose love affair with her magic man inspired so many of those wistful early songs, one of the greatest voices of our time – put together a setlist that blew me away when I saw her on 2 July 2017 at The City National Grove of Anaheim. It was a setlist that included only a handful Heart songs, and blistering covers of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Yes, The Black Crowes, Peter Gabriel, The Who, Buffalo Springfield, Aretha Franklin, Percy Mayfield and, most spectacularly, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins with “I Put a Spell On You”. Blew me away, yet made me contemplative. Ann wasn’t as comfortable on stage when I saw her in Anaheim as she always seemed with Nancy by her side. Ann has made a side career of doing covers. Her 2007 album Hope & Glory featuring covers and famous guest artists was inspired; her more recent covers album, Immortal, featuring covers of songs by dead artists was, I felt, misguided. (Her cover of “Life in the Fast Lane” crashed badly.) But whatever she’s done, I have loved her.
I love them even if I don’t like all of Heart’s later output; their efforts to rock harder and harder on recent albums felt forced to me, as all it takes is a song like “Language of Love” to win my heart. But if this mended Heart is the meeting of two open hearts, then it will be just perfect. And if it’s their last tour together, it will be a perfect goodbye.
So I’ll be at the Hollywood Bowl in September to see Ann and Nancy back together; I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I would love them to do a setlist solely of their love songs on this “Love Alive” tour, and include songs they haven’t performed for years, and make it all about the purity of their music and the kismetic inspirations that drove them to write and sing and play together. But they will probably mix it up with the harder rocking songs because Ann is the female equivalent of Robert Plant and Nancy is a scorching hot guitarist, and they like to rock. I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, finally, here are photos I took of them each back in 2017.
You need a whole lot more than money
You need more than to survive
You gotta keep your love
Keep your love alive
(How many times do you think I used the word “love” in this piece? 27 including the one I just typed.)